Let’s Talk About Iso-Principle: The Introduction

First off, an explanation of iso-principle is needed. The phrase “iso-principle” is specific to music therapy and was coined by a music therapist pioneer in the 1950’s. The most straightforward definition I have found is this:

“[Iso-principle is] a technique by which music is matched with the mood of a client, then gradually altered to affect the desired mood state. This technique can also be used to affect physiological responses such as heart rate and blood pressure” (Davis, Gfeller, & Thaut, 2008).

Iso-principle is so often discussed regarding either mood state, or physiological state – and not typically both at once. I like this particular definition above because it is a helpful reminder that this technique can be used in more than one way. When I was in undergrad, I often thought of this principle as largely mood-based because that was what I could relate to. Barbara Crowe (2004) discusses how most music can be associated with a particular mood, or how particular tonal arrangements, tempos, styles, etc. can easily reflect a feeling that is recognizable. Because of this, imagining how music can affect one’s mood is relatable to most everyone. That’s usually the easiest way I introduce music therapy to someone who has never heard of it before. My broken-down definition of music therapy is: “I use music to help people feel better”. Although there are still many follow-up questions to that statement, people can associate with that idea because people have always used music to connect with their mood state.

A key consideration to this is that not all “typical” emotion-evoking music works in the same way for everyone. People have such personal and intimate relationships with songs that you can’t make any assumptions. Just because “If You’re Happy and You Know It” is an upbeat, often silly, and laughable song doesn’t mean that everyone will connect to it that way. You have to take into account personal experiences, memories, and the way the music is being played when you are considering iso-principle. Looking at it from the other direction may be simpler: often times people can draw strength, enthusiasm, and energy from songs that might usually be perceived as “downers” or “depressing”. Think of your typical folksy, singer-songwriter style of music that is slower, more often in minor keys, and may have thought-provoking lyrics.

Therein lies the key to iso-principle: you have to meet someone where they are at. Let’s take a moment and consider iso-principle from the physiological side. Let’s say you are working with a patient who’s heartbeat is 120 beats per minute (bpm). This is too fast for a healthy resting heart rate, so you play a song at 120 bpm for the tempo. This is meeting someone where they are at physiologically. You then employ the iso-principle technique to lower their heart rate. You gradually decrease the music’s tempo until you reach the desired heart rate. The same idea is used for respiratory rate.

Earlier, I mentioned how iso-principle is sometimes looked at as either/or. You are either affecting their mood state, or you’re affect their physiological state with this technique. But I say you’re always doing both. If your heart rate is too fast, you may be uncomfortable or in pain, unable to focus on other things, and are probably not in a fantastic mood. If you are meeting someone where they are at physiologically, you are also helping meet them where they are at emotionally. The converse is also true. If you are connecting with someone emotionally, physiologically they are likely to relax and have lowered HR and RR.

Which brings me to my main point: Everything in music therapy is about iso-principle. You cannot connect to someone in an effective way without connecting to them emotionally, which also affects mentality and spirituality; or physiologically, which affects physicality. Engaging with others and mirroring their affect or emotional state is the most important way you can build rapport, garner trust, and more quickly connect to someone in music therapy. This idea can be illustrated by simply changing one word from the previously mentioned definition of iso-principle:

“[Iso-principle is] a technique by which [your demeanor] is matched with the mood of a client, then gradually altered to affect the desired mood state.

I will never forget the day where the importance of this insight was demonstrated to me as a patient myself. I had just recently received a health diagnosis that had required me to attend some education classes. I was so newly diagnosed that I was still in stages of disbelief, anger, and frustration. I arrived at this particular class to have a nurse say to me, “Everything’s alright! We are going to learn everything you need to know to succeed in life and you will be happy forever!!!” I may be paraphrasing here, but what I heard her say was, “Everything you are feeling is not valid in this moment in time because I am going to say everything in the happiest of voices and disregard your feelings”! Needless to say, she did not meet me in my emotional state, and I spent the entire class resenting her and what she had to say.

After recognizing how it felt to be addressed without iso-principle, I internally vowed that I would attempt to focus on utilizing iso-principle with all of my music therapy clients, in addition to employing this technique in my personal life. You simply have to question yourself with this: How can I be completely aware of myself and my actions and how they might affect other people?

Tune in next time for the real reason I wanted to discuss iso-principle. “Let’s Talk About Iso-Principle Part 2: The Questions”.

Practicing-My-Citations Bibliography
Crowe, B. (2004). Music and soul making: Toward a new theory of music therapy. Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, Inc.
Davis, W.B., Gfeller, K.E., Thaut, M.H. (2008). An introduction to music therapy theory and practice. (Ed.). Silver Spring, MD: The American Music Therapy Association.

10 responses to “Let’s Talk About Iso-Principle: The Introduction”

  1. Thank you for your explanation on ISO-principle. I am a nurse in the neonatal intensive care unit and am just beginning to research this concept for our babies who are experiencing opioid withdrawal. Do you happen to have any experience applying the iso-principle to this population? I would love to use it to help these babies establish healthy rest/sleep periods so that they can heal more comfortably and quickly. Thanks in advance!


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